As I was leafing through my Humanitas Prize-winning, Emmy-losing Mary Tyler Moore script that I retrieved from the garage, where is sat in a box next to my tax records from 1991, I am reminded of how I sometimes liked to make fun of the shows I was working on.
I don’t know why I did that. I wasn’t trying to get fired; I liked my job. It’s just how my mind works. I need something to push against. It’s also a rather juvenile form of rebellion. I can’t fire my bosses, but they can fire me, and I hate the power mismatch, so I “act out” by making fun of their show.
On their show.
Here’s what I’m talking about.
The episode I wrote, entitled “Ted’s Change of Heart”, concerns how the perennially selfish Ted Baxter is transformed into a life-affirming zealot after his world is shaken by a heart attack. When he returns to work as an on-air news anchor, instead of turf-protectingly berating his fill-in – as he unquestioningly would have before – Ted praises his replacement profusely, going so far as to suggest that they start doing the news together, as co-anchors. Acknowledging this transformation, Ted’s wife, Georgette, understatingly reports:
Now here’s where I made fun of the show. The series was in the habit of having one of the show’s characters, at some point in the episode, relate an extended story, invariably employing a humorous analogy, to encapsulate the problem being played out in the episode. So that’s what I did. I told an analogizing story. But – insidious firebrand that I am – I gave it an unexpected, show-tweaking twist.
It went like this.
After Georgette’s reporting that Ted had changed, Lou Grant, incredulously asks,
“Ted, what happened to you?”
“I’ve been reborn, Lou. And all because of a little spider.”
(And here comes the story.)
TED: A few days ago, I was sitting on the terrace outside our bedroom when I noticed this spider spinning its web near the screen door – patiently, skillfully, lovingly. And then Georgette opened the door and tore the web. And the spider had to build it back up…Then a little later someone else opened the door and the spider had to build it back up again…and then somebody else….
LOU: Ted…could you move it along?
TED: Sure, Lou. You see, I learned something from that little spider, who never gave up, who kept re-building his web over and over and over…I learned that life is short and you have to live for today.
(Here comes the “making fun of the show” part.)
MARY: Ted, that’s not a “live-for-today” story; it’s a “perseverance” story.
TED: It was a “perseverance” story, Mair. But it became a “live-for-today” story when I smacked that spider with my newspaper.
You see what I did there? I took a story that looked like it was making a point about perseverance and I turned it into a “live-for-today” story by having Ted smack the persevering spider with his newspaper. By changing the point of the story, I was skewering the whole analogy-using story-telling process, and by doing so
I was making fun of the series I was working on.
Was I a rebellious, little crazyman, or what? Undermining the show’s patented formula on the show. I was wild. I was incendiary. I was out. Of.
I couldn’t wait for one of my bosses to notice my devilicious sneakiness and give me a tongue-lashing for mocking The Rules and smart-assedly biting the hand that feeds me. I figured it was only a matter of time before I got what I had coming.
They just thought it was funny.
I was crushed. “Hey, I’m a dangerous hothead! Someone should reprimand me. Somebody should take me to task!”
That’s why I’m not a satirist. Despite my intentions, my comedy arrives, totally lacking in danger. My style is utterly bereft of edge. I won’t give up. I’ll continue my efforts as a subversive provocateur. But I don’t seem to have it in me.
No matter how hard I try.